Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers! The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through. So time’s a-wasting!
The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them. Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.
Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring. As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found – longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.
This year, I got curious about where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.
So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers and will be spending the summer with us as well.
Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through
Evidently for some birds, our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on. Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.
At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks. You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song. I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter. They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area. Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So, enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!
This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests. And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.
Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too. According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet. They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks. So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada. While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops. So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.
The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America. Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states. Why avoid us? Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area. So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here, try to see them before they move on!
According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season. They breed north of Michigan’s “thumb.” The reason may be that, like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here. Luckily, during migration, I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest. They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t, like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake! Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.
During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill, Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers. They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.
Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.
All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers. They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown. I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!
The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers, is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as nesting here in our area, but I’ve only seen them during migration. Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!
Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks. These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands. The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator. Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them? (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter. But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America. Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.
The intricately patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches, looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill. They build nests on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns. They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!
The birding group sees or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration. The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy. So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling. The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one. They may have migrated up from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.
Birds Flowing Over Us in the Dark Night Sky
Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night. Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind. Most of the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety. For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their way beneath the stars. They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on. They dodge predators like owls or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day. They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on. Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young, these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.
Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on. It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them. Their bustling activity, brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of winter. Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy. I wish that for you, too.